More than 40 years ago, a worldwide plague emerged. Men who have sex with men (MSM) made up a large portion of those diagnosed early on. Among its first names were gay cancer and GRID (gay-related immune deficiency); eventually, the disease became known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
And talk about a marginalized community. HIV/AIDS-impacted individuals (in the U.S. in the early-to-mid 1980s, it was mostly gay men) were shunned by family and friends, and were often the targets of ministers as well as right-wing organizations who assumed a moral superiority because of the misconception that AIDS was a “gay disease”—and that they couldn’t contract it.
In addition, the media helped to perpetuate the stigmatization—including scientific journals. There was even an item published in the publication Discover in 1985 that stigmatized AIDS as a mostly “gay disease,” describing the rectum as “vulnerable” and the vagina as “rugged.” The article concluded, “AIDS … is now—and is likely to remain—largely the fatal price one can pay for anal intercourse.”
Now, in 2022, another virus is casting its shadow over the world: the monkeypox virus. It is also disproportionately impacting men who have sex with men and their sexual partners.
Recently, the World Health Organization declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared monkeypox a national public health emergency on Aug. 4.
Of course, there are differences between the two diseases, including methods of transmission (with monkeypox, those include close contact with body fluids, sores, respiratory droplets or even shared bedding/towels), symptoms — and the fact that there’s a vaccine for monkeypox, although it is in short supply.
However, there are similarities, including the aforementioned global designation — and the stigmatization of MSM. NBC News reported July 22 that a study in the New England Journal of Medicine stated the worldwide monkeypox outbreak is being largely driven by MSM, which is inflaming verbal and social-media attacks against these men.
The Chicago Department of Public Health has stated that monkeypox can spread through oral, anal and vaginal sex; hugging, kissing and cuddling; and contact with bedding. Correct us if we’re wrong, but those methods involve most of the population, not just men who have sex with men. By the way, there are more than 500 cases in Chicago alone and, yes, the majority of cases so far — involve men who have sex with men.
Due to the frequency of monkeypox infections among MSM, some people will think it’s fine to do what they want to do because they don’t belong to a particular demographic. Those people may also take on an air of moral superiority or even think some people deserve to suffer from these diseases.
As with HIV/AIDS, this can have devastating health consequences. Dr. Stella Safo, MPH (@AmmahStarr), an HIV primary care physician in New York City, wrote on Twitter: “Early years of the HIV pandemic framed HIV/AIDS as a ‘gay man disease.’ Women, and especially Black and brown heterosexual women, suffered from this narrow framing. Even now, the rates of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) use among high risk women are lower than they should be.”
Individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS have dealt with these types of stereotypes and misinformation for decades. Some have speculated that these are among the reasons an AIDS vaccine has not been created; had everyone been seen as immediately at risk — as with COVID — there may have been a vaccine available more quickly.
Worse, some people may start to believe these destructive statements, leading to avoidance (of everyone from friends to physicians), depression and worse.
We should be careful in stigmatizing a particular group of people with a disease. That could lead to complacency and the repeating of historical mistakes — to potentially deadly effect.
Chicago’s Howard Brown Health recommends the following prevention techniques.
First, check (on yourself and partners):
o Your skin for bumps, blisters, or rash that may look like pimples.
o Genital areas, around the anus, trunk, face, hands and back.
o Rash may be in the mouth, urethra and/or rectum. Some or all symptoms may be present during monkeypox infection. Isolate if you experience fever, swollen lymph nodes and/or rash, which may or may not be painful.
- Do not share bedding/towels and avoid skin-to-skin contact.
- Wear a mask around others.
- Whenever possible, limit the number of sex partners. A tight or closed network of partners may help reduce your risk of infection.
- Avoid sex with partners whose monkeypox status is unknown.
Get the facts about monkeypox; visit https://www.cdc.gov/poxvirus/monkeypox/index.html.
Tracy Baim is the co-founder of Windy City Times, a Chicago LGBTQ newspaper launched in 1985. Andrew Davis is executive editor of Windy City Times.